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Episode 2: The After Show, Sarah Hepola

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Paul Kix: Hey, welcome to the wrap up show for Now That's a Great Story. This is going to be sort of a place where I get to talk about my thoughts on the previous episode, my thoughts on storytelling in general, my thoughts on life, so it's just going to be me. We might ultimately open it up to, you know, listeners questions, readers questions, but for right now -- maybe forever -- but for right now it's just going to be me. So let's start with the last episode: the one with Sarah Heppola and where she discusses the chapter from her book “Blackout.”


One of the things I just love about Sarah is her idea that writing is performance, and you can see that so clearly in with what she does. she talks about you to the range of emotions that she's trying to convey in that chapter and really she does this across all of her writing this as you know you can go and read some of her pieces on Salon. I might link to that and in the show notes for this episode. She's got a long history of doing just amazing sort of personal essays with memoir sort of pieces. But I think of this idea of performance writing is so true, and I personally never understood the writers who say that they hate writing. I actually love the process of writing because it is performative but at the same time you get to only show the audience what it is, exactly, that you want to show them. You get to edit it. If you're lucky enough you have one maybe two other people who are reading it before it goes out to the public. It's the best sort of performance that there is. And, you know, when I was coming up, I thought for a while that I wanted to be a sportscaster, a sports anchor. And I even you know growing up in Iowa even had an internship the summer of my sophomore year at the NBC affiliate in Des Moines and it was a great internship. I really like the people there, but I came to realize over the course of that internship that this was something that I just probably wasn't going to enjoy. And I began to get a hint for that even before that internship when I was doing to stop at my college television station -- where I got to be strangely enough in front of the mic and talking so I guess it's 20 years later I'm kind of doing the same thing.


But it was different back then because I was doing something akin to a really low grade like college student equivalent of what a nightly sports anchor. And I kept thinking to myself I'm just not doing this as well as I would like to. It wasn't exactly what I wanted to say. It wasn't exactly the way I wanted to say it, and it ended up getting sort of super frustrating. And so by the time that I actually take an internship and am going through it, I realized, man, I just don't like this. And the thing that I liked instead was the stuff that I was able to do at the college newspaper. I had a column and I was able to you know -- like I would spend hours,probably far too much time by anyone's standards, but hours trying to get, you know, these 500 words just the way I wanted it. And then I would  listen -- probably more begrudgingly than I would care to admit -- that I would listen to what the editors had to say, too, and then try to improve upon that. And I came to realize by the end of that internship at the NBC affiliate in Des Moines that, man, that's where I want to spend my life. That's the stuff that I just really enjoy doing. It's not only the thought, it's not only the creation of the piece, it's not only the first draft of the piece, but for me, I enjoy the rewriting. I enjoy getting the writing to the point where it is so much better than anything I do extemporaneously. And probably even including any of the things that I'm doing here or that other podcasters are doing. You know, there's always going to be a part of me that just loves sitting down in front of the screen and trying to get things perfect and that sort of performance is something that I think Sarah does just so well. and that's part of the reason why I wanted to have her on the show


I mean I think she's I think she's a great conversationalist and I think that really came through in the episode but I also just think that you know dare there is something about just trying to expose her writing to more and more people, because I think, especially, if you're young if you're young in high school, college, starting now, or even if you're somebody that's switching a career or thinking more about doing some form of writing,  you would be well-served by reading someone like Sarah. Because it is just so very lively and the people she was talking about in the episode: Dave Eggers Chuck Klosterman David Foster Wallace, these were all guys -- now admittingly it’s a little bit dated, this is twenty years ago -- but these were people that Sarah and I really gravitated to because they were just doing things with language that was so fascinating and I really encourage you to go ahead and read some of those people if you haven't. if those names are familiar to you you don't wind right now and listen to this again so you can jot down some of those names. I really think you're going to benefit rom being exposed to that kind of writing.


It’s sort of like the style of it is sort of open and insouciant in a way that a lot of great internet writers are today. but there is a level of gravitas to it then I think a lot of people online don't necessarily pull off so go back and read that stuff. Another reason that I wanted to have Sarah on was just the her brutal honesty, right? I knew that that chapter was tough for her to write and I wanted to discuss it and it was tough for her to talk about, too, but she is she has this great ability to not only be honest with herself or rather let me see it again she has this ability to be honest with herself in such a way that it also makes her a great judge of other people's character.

And a short time after Blackout came out, there was at a conference in Texas. She lives she down in Texas and I was actually down there, too, at the same writers conference with a good friend and a writer named Wright Thompson. I was for a long time Wright’s editor at ESPN, and so we were down there together doing one panel and Sarah was down there doing another panel and we decided afterwards to to go out here. We go to Bob's Steakhouse which is this legendary Steakhouse in Dallas and just -- it's one of the best steaks I've ever had was at Bob’s. And sort of imagine, you know, like Oak everything, you know, dark, a little bit smoky, you know that there's just -- there's this one table where I’ve seen Troy Aikman in there before. there's a table reserved in the back for T. Boone Pickens which is a legendary oil man, oil tycoon and hedge fund guy in Dallas. And so we sit down and Wright and I were probably kind of like we were kind of trying to perform for her as well because we had seen in her own presentation -- like it's kind of like the podcast with me, like Sarah can do really well in front of a crowd and Sarah can do really well in front of just a couple of people and so it was this sort of really lively repartee; this really ;ively back and forth and and we started to sort of cut in on each other and you know try to take each other down and Sarah was like absolutely a part of that. Like she was able to sort of cut through the charade of the stuff that we were doing, trying to impress her and in her own subtle way call us out on that -- but still do it in a way where there was a lot of kindness behind it.

And at a certain point as the evening progressed I sort of turned to her and I realize that Wright, and I have been drinking Scotches and wine with dinner, and I said, you know, Sarah I forgot to ask if it's fine with you. And she gave me this like withering look and she quickly sort of masked it behind kind eyes. But just for a minute she gave me this withering look, and that one look just said, you know, you idiot. Don't think for a second and I'm not strong enough to be able to not only handle my own with you, too, but to be able to handle my own in any crowd with are people drinking.

The truth of this life of trying to make it as a writer in one way or another is that the writer's life is kind of the drinkers life, right? There's always alcohol around at parties. Either steer clear of that, or, sort of -- there's a lot of people who romanticize it and embrace it. For a long time it was Sarah until she got sober. And Sarah, you know, has decided to not give up anything, right? She still goes out with the people she used to hang out with; she still of course doing the same writing that she's done. She's strong enough  to do it on her terms and I think it just sort of bears repeating that this stealiness is what allows her to be so raw and honest on the page And I got to be honest: I'm not that strong. I can't go where Sarah goes with her writing. That's probably why I stick to narrative nonfiction and screenplays about other people. That's why the majority of my writing career is made up of talking about almost anybody but myself because there's still this part of me that wants to say I don't think that's something that I want to expose myself to.


For Sarah to be that honest on the page, you know, it's a judge not only of of her writing but, in the end, readers are judging her character -- and don't get me wrong, I love the idea of bleeding for your writing. I think so many creative types do that. They care so much that they end up putting some essential truth about themselves on the page and it's just often times the process of writing and you don't even have to be writing about yourself to do it well. Tom Junoed, the legendary magazine writer ,says that you can judge everything he's cared about based only on the people he's written about. You can basically write a biography of him based only on reading what he's written about other people because some essential part of himself ends up seeping through -- in bleeding through and onto the pages of the magazine. So a lot of us do that and I love visceral writing but for Sarah, for her it’s like she’s  opening an artery and she just sort of welcomes the reader to judge the mess that she's created. And that's brave stuff in whatever the format. 


I hope you stick it out with me because I'm going to be doing everything in my power to make this podcast worth your while. And to make my email newsletter worth your while. And to make anything else I might want to do down the road -- and maybe there’s even a third format or fourth format -- I want to make all that stuff worth your while. I want to just find a way to take the passion that I've had for doing what I do and finding a way to spread it to as many like-minded people as possible who maybe little bit reticent about how good they might be. Maybe you aren't quite sure of how to actually start to do this. You're going to find in the coming weeks and months that a lot of -- I'm not just interviewing people who've written memoirs. You notice this show is meant for all sorts of creative types. I want screenwriters on here. I want songwriters on here. I want novelist on here. I want journalists on here. I want nonfiction authors on here. I might even expand it to people who aren't even just writing -- like I might expand it to directors or who knows, But I want to find a way to get you to feel that there is a way for you to do this sort of work. There is a way for you to be compensated for it; is a way for you to make a career out of it and then to make this even more than a career -- to sort of have this be your life's great passion. Because that is definitely the case for me, and it is certainly the case for Sarah as well. I hope you keep listening, and I'll see you next time.

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